FOSS Open Content/Introduction

While the question of who has control and who has access to knowledge and culture is an age-old one, it seems to have gained urgency in the context of the ‘information revolution’ of the past few years.As with all revolutionary moments, older structures of power are challenged and potentially overturned. In our current era, the information revolution promises a radical shift in the paradigm of how information, knowledge and culture are produced, disseminated and accessed. [ 1 ]

However, this promise must overcome the challenges of severe restrictions that run the risk of making access to knowledge and culture more difficult for people. This e-Primer will explore the twin metaphors of perils and promises that society must confront in the future of the ‘information age’. In particular, we will be examining one aspect of this crucial debate, namely the debate between copyright and Open Content.

The argument of this e-Primer will be that policy makers across the world, and particularly in developing countries, should take note of the advantages of the Open Content paradigm as a way of overcoming barriers which restrict access to information, knowledge and culture. There are also significant economic advantages for developing countries which shall be detailed, for instance in relation to the cost of learning materials.

The Emergence of Copyright

The transformation of copyright, from an esoteric legal subject to a topic of daily conversation and debate, has occurred in a relatively short span of time. No account of this contemporary moment would be complete without an examination of the dominance of the small copyright sign on our lives. In recent times, the aggressive expansion of property claims into every domain of knowledge and cultural practice has brought everyone from the academic to the musician into the debate. In many ways, the mere act of looking at, reading, listening to, creating, understanding, or communicating any objects that embody thought, knowledge or feeling is as fraught with anxiety today as the trespassing of private property has been throughout much of human history.[ 2 ]



This anxiety and conflict is not restricted to a set of geographical locations; however, the nature of the conflict changes as we move from the United States and Europe to parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa. In the US, the crisis is represented as a crisis of creativity; the dominant fear is that of the shrinking of the public domain and the commons[ 3 ]by the extension of copyright, the challenges brought about by new technologies of production and dissemination, such as the Internet, and the criminalization of peer-to-peer (P2P) activities of young people. In Africa, the price of learning materials imposes a heavy cost to governments already plagued by other pressing developmental needs.Meanwhile, in many parts of Asia, the proliferation of cheap media reproduction technologies creates a parallel economy that threatens the monopoly once held by dominant media industry players and places these countries at risk of facing sanctions from the US for violating copyrights.[ 4 ]

Lest we imagine that this is a completely new situation, let us revisit a moment in history which was rather similar. The 18th Century saw a transition from a largely agrarian to an industrial economy. This change was accompanied by massive transformations in the realm of property law, marked by sharp social conflict and the emergence of all kinds of laws to protect property and regulate everyday life. A new language of criminality emerged alongside new forms of property protection and a sharp increase in the use of force against offenders (ranging from people who ‘stole fruits from trees’ to people who illegally occupied land).[ 5 ]

We are constantly reminded that we are in an era of transition, and it is clear through current discourse that we are now living in an information era.[ 6 ] This transition has been marked by the attempts to define new regimes of property, giving rise to sharp social conflicts over the definitions and extent of such property.

In the midst of the aggressive expansion of ‘intellectual property’,[ 7 ] there has also been a parallel movement arguing for a re-articulation of the importance of the commons of knowledge and cultural production. Thus, even as systems of copyright, patent and trademark attempt to entrench themselves alongside the older structures of capitalism by creating a new language of criminality,[ 8 ] there is another language that has been emerging – the language of ‘openness’, ‘collaborative production’ and ‘freedom’ with respect to information goods, cultural production and participation in the information economy.This new language has been enabled by the success of the Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) movement, with its most-identified product, the GNU/Linux operating system, being evoked as a viable alternative to the world of classical copyright and proprietary knowledge.[ 9 ]

What is Open Content?Edit

In this e-Primer,we shall be looking specifically at the world of Open Content,by which we mean all material (text, sound, images) that the general public can freely use, distribute and modify without the traditional restrictions imposed by copyright. These actions can be sanctioned either by an Open Content license or by commonly accepted practice.[ 10 ]

Open Content derives philosophically from the Free Software movement and attempts to achieve for the world of general content what FOSS did for software.[ 11 ] The word ‘content’ itself may sometimes be misleading as it refers to a whole range of subject matter, from music to movies and literature to learning materials. We therefore use the phrase ‘Open Content’ to primarily refer to content that provides the greatest freedom (the right to modify), since other kinds of content which do not provide the right to modify may actually be covered by the Open Access movement. Finally, for the purposes of this e-Primer, we shall use the word ‘content’ to include the range of materials covered by copyright law, excluding software.

Overview of the e-PrimerEdit

In this e-Primer,we begin by examining the context in which the Open Content movement has emerged; namely, the politics of copyright and the ways in which it impedes creativity and the sharing of knowledge.We also examine some of the founding myths that inform copyright law. We then move on to an analysis of how copyright has developed over the past decades and what that means for questions of access to knowledge and culture.

The next section then examines alternatives to copyright that have emerged in the context of software and their application to the domain of knowledge creation.This leads us to a detailed examination of the ways in which the Open Content paradigm is reshaping our ideas of creativity and knowledge creation using various case studies. This is followed by a study of the ways in which Open Content licenses work. Finally, we conclude with an analysis of the potential policy implications and possible limitations of Open Content.

Last modified on 2 September 2011, at 22:24